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Colorado women's basketball coach JR Payne encourages her team during practice on Sept. 27, 2022, at the CU Events Center in Boulder, Colo. (University of Colorado Athletics)
Colorado women’s basketball coach JR Payne encourages her team during practice on Sept. 27, 2022, at the CU Events Center in Boulder, Colo. (University of Colorado Athletics)

New NCAA rules allow basketball coaches to spend more time on the court with their players in the offseason. Still, there is a measure of excitement about the official start of preseason practices.

“It definitely feels different,” CU women’s basketball coach JR Payne said. “(Day one) is different (from the past), but it feels great because officially season has started.”

For the CU women, who began practices on Monday, there’s a different feel than in the past because of what they did a year ago.

CU (22-9, 9-7 Pac-12) snapped a nine-year NCAA Tournament drought in March and looks to build on that, despite losing some of their best players and leaders. First team all-Pac-12 forward Mya Hollingshed graduated, as did starters Peanut Tuitele and Sila Finau. Senior Aubrey Knight missed last year with an injury, but was a leader and is no longer around the program, either.

That’s a lot of production to replace, but, more importantly, a lot of leadership.

“We had some great veterans, so I think it’s a lot of shoes to be filled,” senior Tayanna Jones said. “But last year they prepared us so much for this opportunity. I think we’re locked in even more, like ‘OK, we know the standard. We know what you guys did, so now we’re gonna do it and try to do it even better.’ It left a good print on us so we can just make sure we’re doing what we need to do.”

The Buffs certainly have aspirations to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but as they open preseason practices, the search for leadership and a new identity is near the top of the list of priorities.

“I think we’re still in the midst of figuring out who we are in the absence of some pretty strong vocal presence,” Payne said. “Younger players and even veterans who have been a little bit quieter, I’ve loved seeing them grow their voice, growing their leadership, and really taking some of these young players under their wing.”

Payne said senior forward Quay Miller has “been exceptional” as a leader this offseason, while Jones has been more vocal than in the past. The Buffs are also continuing to develop point guards Jaylyn Sherrod and Kindyll Wetta as vocal leaders.

Sherrod and Wetta might be the two most competitive players on the team and they lead by example, but the vocal aspect is still progressing.

“(Leading vocally) does feel forced, in some ways,” Payne said. “I think some of our best players and best floor leaders are naturally very quiet people, so it’s outside their comfort zone.”

Challenging them is part of the growth process for the Buffs, however, and Payne loves the overall makeup of the 13-player roster, which includes five newcomers.

“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It’s also important, I think, for us to remember that we’re returning a lot of really key pieces. … There’s a lot coming back. We’re trying to lean on those guys, but also try to challenge them to step up in their roles.”

Sherrod, now a senior, said the Buffs have done a great job of coming together off the court this offseason, including during their 10-day, three-game trip to Spain in August. It has become a close-knit team, Sherrod said, and it’s a group ready to make another postseason run.

“Last year really set a foundation for this program and the standard that we want to keep going,” Sherrod said. “I think everybody’s buying into it. It seems that we’re young, but at the same time, even the young people – outside of the freshmen – pretty much played last year. So I think it’s just keeping that culture. We know what it took to get there, so I think we bring a lot of experience in that aspect.”